Critics of Louisiana coast project point to the firing of a state biologist

The state says Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion played no role in Mandy Tumlin’s civil service appeal
Published: Aug. 16, 2021 at 10:02 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -Critics of Louisiana’s largest coast project point to the firing of a marine biologist who responded to dolphin deaths in the 2019 Bonnet Carre Spillway opening.

Mandy Tumlin had served as a biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for 14 years.

In that role, she coordinated the Louisiana’s efforts to respond when dolphins and sea turtles were in distress, including in the aftermath of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“It was a true love of my job,” Tumlin said. “I decided to be a marine biologist at age 13.”

In December of 2019, months after the spillway opening, Tumlin was fired.

“We were finding animals in an increased number in parishes, such as St. Bernard, that we did not normally see.”

Many of the bottlenose dolphins were covered in fresh water lesions, Tumlin said.

“A lot of things seemed to be different during that time period,” including Tumlin said, her bosses forbidding her from talking to news reporters as she had in recent events.

Dolphins have become a sensitive political issue as the state seeks a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to build and operate the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion Project.

The $2 billion project aims to channel a portion of the Mississippi River into Barataria Bay, mimicking the river’s land-building powers.

However, marine scientists have warned the more than 2,000 dolphins that live there could become “functionally extinct” in many parts of the bay as fresh river water transforms the estuary.

“Maybe it wasn’t convenient for the state to find out how many dolphins were actually killed by river water,” said George Ricks, a charter boat captain who leads The Save Louisiana Coalition, a group of commercial and recreational fishers opposed to the project.

“We definitely feel there is a link between exposing the number of animals that were dying, the issues they were dying from,” Tumlin said.

Tumlin is appealing the firing and Wildlife and Fisheries will not comment directly on the case, citing personnel matters.

However, in a brief statement, the department said, “Ms. Tumlin’s dismissal was not in any way related to sediment diversions, nor has she raised that allegation during the Civil Service Appeal process.”

The appeal hinges largely on whether Tumlin was fulfilling her job responsibilities.

“Twenty days into the event, she was told to stop responding to the strandings,” Ricks said. “She didn’t stop responding to the strandings, she was told not to.”

The state paints a very different picture of reality, arguing in documents that it was Tumlin who repeatedly failed to meet federal deadlines for reporting the strandings of dolphins and sea turtles.

The two sides disagree on whether the deadline actually applied to Tumlin.

The letter informing Tumlin of her firing notes she had been docked three days pay in 2017.

It includes a list of alleged transgressions, including failure to distribute microchips used to track animals.

“Your failures to perform your job duties are inexcusable for any employee, but are especially egregious for an experienced, high-levee employee such as yourself,” wrote Nicole Lorenz, Biologist Program Manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The letter notes Tumlin had been docked three days pay in 2017, “as we are again addressing your insubordination, failure to communicate, missing deadlines and failure to perform your job duties.”

Tumlin’s attorney, Arthur J. Smith III, would not comment directly on details of the case.

“The whole thing just stinks,” Smith said.” “If one would read the termination letter and read the overwhelming comments about her work, you’d be thinking that you live in two different universes.”

Tumlin said her problems began after she was transferred to another office under a supervisor she’d had trouble with in the past.

“It felt like I was being hunted and all we wanted to do was do our jobs,” Tumlin said.

“At times, I felt as though the roadblocks were being initiated because the science probably wasn’t showing what the state wanted it to show.”

A state civil service referee heard Tumlin’s appeal at hearings in May and June. Both sides expect a decision within a few months.

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